Kentavious Caldwell-Pope is a divisive player for Detroit Pistons fans. He inspires affection wiht his gritty defense and full-throttle play, and ire for his hair-trigger shot selection and inconsistent production.
Headed for a big payday this offseason, he was bound to become even more divisive. WHAT DID YOU SAY ABOUT KCP?? became a daily meme around DBB. His contract year season did little to answer those questions - it only created more.
I’m not going to go into recapping KCP’s season; Mike Snyder did a terrific job of that already. But the big thing I’ll emphasize is the difference between KCP’s first half and second half.
KCP’s first 41 games: 14.5 points per game, 42.6 percent field goal percentage, 40.4 percent three point percentage, 55 percent true shooting percentage, 3 assists, 105.2 defensive rating, 43.3 percent defended field goal percentage with a -1.5 percent differential.
His second 41 games? Down to 12.9 points per game, 36.8 percent field goal percentage, 29.7 percent three point percentage, 48.4 percent true shooting percentage, 2 assists, 110.5 defensive rating, 47.8 percent defended field goal percentage with a +3.1 differential.
Of course, in that 41st game of the season, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope ran into a hard Zaza Pachulia screen, and missed the remainder of that contest along with the next four games with a shoulder injury. Dammit Zaza.
In that first half of the season, KCP looked like a max contract player. He was knocking down his three pointers, had become an integral part of the offense, and brought his trademark high-energy defense. The #PayKCP debate was over. But, if establishing himself as a max player was reaching the summit of the mountain, his left shoulder rolled him back down it.
We don’t know what kind of offer KCP is going to get, but I’m going to lay it out here: It doesn’t matter. It’s going to be a significant dollar amount. Whether it’s $90 million, $110 million, or $125 million, it’s going to be a lot. And it’s a bet on KCP that he’s more than the “14 points per game at 52 true shooting percent player with good-not-great defense” that he’s ended the last two seasons as.
The reason it doesn’t matter is because of Andre Drummond. Even if Stan Van Gundy and Jeff Bower hadn’t been so willing to spend Tom Gores’ money to the point that a Caldwell-Pope contract will likely put the team into the luxury tax, there are bigger issues at play.
Including his player option, the Pistons have more than $100 million invested in Drummond through 2021. Of course, this was a rough season for Dre. Going on his third straight season of nearly identical results, the worry is that he’s plateaued as a Hall-of-Fame-level rebounder, replacement-level offensive player, and G-League level defensive player. That’s not someone you want to pay $100 million.
As Sean Corp said at the time of the signing, the max contract the Pistons offered last season was a bet on Drummond’s development. It’s a bet the Pistons are losing so far.
Of players who took at least 900 field goal attempts last season, Andre Drummond finished 2016-17 with the sixth-lowest true shooting percentage. Wanna take a guess who was just one notch better? That’s right, Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
And this isn’t an anomaly. Last season, Drummond had the fifth-lowest TS while KCP had the 12th-lowest. In 2014-15 the pair finished eighth and seventh, respectively. They’ve developed a pretty strong track record of offensive inefficiency.
A post-rookie maximum salary is 25 percent of the league’s salary cap. It doesn’t really matter if you’ve got 50 percent of your salary cap tied up in two guys like that for the foreseeable future or if it’s “only” 40 percent. Either is way too much. If both players fail to improve, the franchise is in some pretty major trouble.
Still, both players remain young and talented. In a vacuum, it makes sense to invest in them. Drummond’s athleticism and quickness allows him to do things few other big men in the league are able to. If he can just commit to focusing on defense, play with energy every night, and dramatically reduce his post up attempts, he could be an excellent player.
And you can read back to last year when I waxed poetic about the virtues of KCP - and he’s flashed even more reasons to appreciate him this season. There were more than a handful of games this season where the Pistons were dead in the water until Caldwell-Pope caught fire offensively. He’s absolutely become one of those guys with a knack for “the moment,” who you want taking the shot when the game is on the line. Not to mention he also has the potential to be one of the top perimeter defenders in the league, even if his results don’t always tend to keep up with the eye test yet at this point.
Or in short, each has his own reasons for optimism and concern. But you can’t gamble $200 million in a pair of guys like that.
The case for KCP
If you sign KCP to a max contract, you’re betting on the first half of this season being who he is going forward. Although you’re not a 40 percent three point shooter if you only shoot that mark through half the season, it’s at least an indicator of potential. For instance, Jimmy Butler took a nice step forward this season, posting career highs in scoring, scoring efficiency, rebounding, and assists. That improvement didn’t just come out of nowhere. In 2015-16 Butler posted a very similar line before the All-Star break, then faded down the stretch.
If KCP is able to put together a full season like he did before his injury, salary isn’t much of an issue. He wasn’t just a three-and-D player, but an integral piece the offense. He carried a heavier role as a secondary ball handler, something that was previously a weakness for him. He was the team’s closer in the fourth quarter, regularly putting the team on his back in key moments. Even with his poor final stretch, KCP still led the team in second half scoring.
This speaks to the difference in mentality between the two players. It’s impossible to say the cause in the difference, but we can speak to the results. KCP just seems to show a greater resilience. After a lousy shooting night, KCP has shown the ability to put his struggles earlier in the game behind him and step up to make huge shots. Like against the Hornets on February 23, when KCP started off 5-18 shooting through the first 45 minutes of the game. Then he reeled off 11 points in the final 2:20 of the fourth quarter, including nailing a three to send the game into overtime.
Does this look like a guy who couldn’t buy a bucket up to this point?
The look on Steve Clifford’s face is just perfect. Yep, that just happened.
It’s impossible to say for certain what caused KCP’s dramatic drop in the second half. But it did coincide exactly with his shoulder injury. It’s certainly not absurd to think that what we saw in the first half is a more accurate example of the caliber of player KCP is than what we saw in the second half. If that’s the case, it’d be pretty painful to see him put it all together and take that next step for another team next season.
The case against KCP
It’s also worth considering whether it really was KCP’s shoulder injury that impacted him so severely. After all, his performance actually got worse as he got further away from the injury. After a full month back on the court, KCP shot 36 percent from the field and 28 percent from three while also playing lousy defense in March and April. So perhaps there were other factors at play. While not intending to make more of the incident than it deserves, it is worth noting that during this final stretch while he was playing so poorly KCP was also arrested on suspicion of driving under the influence.
And regardless of the cause for his ineffectiveness, it’s on Caldwell-Pope to figure out how to still be an asset on the court when his jumper isn’t falling. He was unable to adjust this season the way that he did in 2015-16 when his three point shot stopped falling, continuing to rely on his jumper even when it wasn’t reliable. Only 13 percent of his shots came from the restricted area after his shoulder injury, compared to 24 percent in 2015-16.
Perhaps the biggest reason to pay KCP is his defense. However as Mike pointed out, KCP’s defense isn’t elite, and it’s easy to mistake activity for achievement in that area. Caldwell-Pope typically plays with nice energy on defense, but his results haven’t typically matched up with that energy. He still shows potential on that end, but potential is still a theory. Without those results, he’s not a particularly valuable player.
His 14 points per game on 52 percent true shooting percentage with a few rebounds and assists puts him in the company of the likes of Sean Kilpatrick or Brandon Knight. The Nets signed Kilpatrick out of the D-League and paid him less than $1 million this year. The Pistons are looking to be paying KCP in the $20 million neighborhood. That’s not exactly cost effective.
And even at his best, the salary Caldwell-Pope will command is a questionable investment. While he’s shown signs of being a solid starting shooting guard, there’s not been flashes of being a star. But we’re talking about a star-level contract. Drummond, on the other hand, has shown definite flashes of star potential at times.
The case for Drummond
Few players in the NBA are capable of doing what Andre Drummond is able to when he’s locked in.
Even in a down year, Drummond still showed the ability to be a dominant player. He still had the second most 20-point, 20-rebound games, and still leads the league in the mark since he entered the NBA. You could look at the Pistons 107-84 win over the Miami Heat, when Drummond prevailed over Hassan Whiteside. Or when Drummond was the difference when the Pistons won big over the Minnesota Timberwolves, 117-90.
Drummond is one of the best finishers in the league. He’s one of the best rebounders in the league. He can make plays defensively, finishing 13th in the league in steals and finishing in the top 10 in blocks earlier in his career. Those are some great traits to have out of your starting center.
Drummond’s issues should be correctable. Play with energy every night, particularly on the defensive end. Take smart shots. Play to your strengths. Do that, and he’s a top 10 player in the league. Which is a star potential that is almost certainly greater than KCP’s.
In 2014 I wrote “Drummond is the motherlode of a gold pocket that could be mined with a leaf blower.” Whether it’s SVG or Drummond’s fault, they’ve somehow managed to screw things up.
Still, at that point Drummond was one of the top centers in the league. Second in the league in rebounding in his first two seasons at just 19 and 20 years old, he grabbed the ninth most offensive rebounds in league history. And he managed to score efficiently, posting a 60 percent true shooting percentage despite being one of the worst free throw shooters the league had ever seen. His defense was better too, allowing opposing players to shoot .9 percent over their average field goal percentage rather than the abysmal four percent mark this year.
One of the biggest things to look for in whether a player can fulfill potential in a certain aspect of their game is whether they’ve done it before. Drummond has. KCP hasn’t yet, at least not for a full season.
The case against Drummond
Let’s start with this. The patented missed hook. Slumped shoulders. Trot back up the court. Saw it way too often. Yeah, these examples are all just from one game:
And on each one of those plays, the Magic are able to get back up the court and get a solid shot off before Drummond is anywhere close.
Drummond’s physical gifts are pretty much impossible to replace or replicate. But his effectiveness on the court has not been in the same realm of those gifts. Drummond was outplayed by a significant margin by his backup this season, Aron Baynes. It doesn’t really take much to acquire a player of Baynes’ caliber, suggesting that Drummond could be pretty easily replaced by someone more effective.
And it’s not just as though we’re talking about one bad year. We’re looking at the third straight season of similar performance out of Drummond. And he doesn’t seem to have any recognition to the flaws to his game or even need to improve, saying that “I didn't do that bad. I still was an All-Star, I still was All-NBA.” Seriously, no you weren’t. A fourth year at 24 years old and “upside” or “potential” won’t be words associated with him any longer - rather “disappointment” or “underachiever.” Which will make that max contract hanging on the team’s neck start feeling really heavy.
While much was made of the structure of the team’s offense being framed around Andre Drummond and Reggie Jackson’s pick and roll combination, it hasn’t played out that way. The post up game was actually a far larger part of Drummond’s game. He took 277 shot attempts out of post ups and only 119 through the pick and roll. And that’s not just a reflection of Jackson’s ineffectiveness this season. Pick and roll finishes made up only 12.2 percent of Drummond’s offense this season, compared to 13.2 percent last year.
Whether it’s Drummond’s shot selection or Stan Van Gundy’s play calling is a matter of speculation. The fact is that the post up game is a far bigger part of the Pistons’ big man’s game. If going to continue to be the case, Drummond is a round peg for a square hole. After three straight seasons of verifying that Drummond is a .7 points per possession post up player, almost any center in the league would be a better fit than Drummond. Filling the position with a player who can thrive as a post up threat simply makes sense if it’s bound to be a major part of the offense. As long as Drummond is a high usage post up player and terrible free throw shooter, it will be extremely difficult for him to ever be an effective offensive player.
Then there’s his defense. While his block and steal numbers aren’t terrible, everything else is. He finished the season 373rd in defensive rating, which helped him to a -6.3 net rating (the difference between his offensive and defensive net rating). He had the seventh worst opponent field goal percentage in the league. Any need to go on here?
Lastly, you can actually get a return for Andre Drummond. It’s not a matter of just letting him walk for nothing, as it would be with KCP. In fact, Drummond could be just the player it takes to get a seriously high quality player in return. An unusual number of top players like Paul George and Butler have their situation up in the air. Drummond looks like a good fit for teams with top picks in a solid draft like the Boston Celtics and Phoenix Suns. And potentially dominant post up threats like Enes Kanter, Brook Lopez, and Jahlil Okafor could likely be acquired for a reasonable return that might not even require Drummond’s inclusion, letting him be used in a separate deal for a bigger name.
KCP’s path to effectiveness looks more possible at this point. In 2015-16, he showed the ability to at least keep himself afloat when his three-point shot isn’t falling thanks to improvement inside the arc and an increase in free throw shooting. That wasn’t the case this season. But if KCP can be an effective three point shooter while also performing inside the arc like he did in 2015-16, he’ll be an efficient player. Still lots of “ifs” involved, but KCP has at least flashed the ability to fulfill those “ifs.”
Just letting KCP walk, you’re probably not going to pull off a sign and trade these days (have we sorted out if that’s even still a thing yet?). In terms of utilizing “assets” on the team to their fullest extent, keeping KCP while parting with Drummond would have the greatest impact.
Why not Reggie Jackson?
In 2015-16, Reggie Jackson was worth his contract. The difference between Jackson offensively this season and that previous season was three points per 36 minutes, 2.5 percentage points in true shooting percentage, and .5 assists per 36 minutes. That’s a pretty easy gap to overcome.
Yes, his defense was also atrocious. But it was atrocious in 2015-16 too - his defensive field goal percentage was 48.5 percent this season and 48.1 percent the year before. Those defensive deficiencies just stand out much more when his offense isn’t there either. So Jackson doesn’t have particularly far to go to match his 2015-16 performance.
In 2019-20, Jackson will be making around $9 million less than Drummond or KCP stand to be making. Which means that Jackson both represents less risk from an investment standpoint and also has less ground to go to be worth his contract.
Also, the bet for Jackson is already hedged. Jackson isn’t entrenched in the starting job the same way that Drummond or Caldwell-Pope is. KCP has only come off the bench once during the SVG era, when Van Gundy didn’t even realize Caldwell-Pope had made it to the stadium after his wife gave birth to their son. Drummond has started every game he’s played. Meanwhile SVG moved Jackson to the bench in favor of Ish Smith last season.
Which means that if Ish outplays Jackson next season, there’s a precedence for him taking the starting job. And you can do worse than Reggie Jackson as your backup point guard. But you don’t want to pay Jackson his contract as a backup, right? Nah, Ish starting with a reasonable salary balances it out. Jackson and Ish combined will make about the same as what Drummond and Caldwell-Pope alone will make. Regardless of who is playing what minutes, the cost effectiveness is reasonable.
There’s also the questions of how do you get rid of Jackson and how do you replace him. If he’s treated as a toxic asset, is he really going to bring back a rotation-caliber player and cap relief? Because if it doesn’t accomplish both, you’re still left with the same KCP-Dre conundrum.
So you’re left with a tough choice. There’s no easy way out. Andre Drummond or Kentavious Caldwell-Pope.
Paying both just isn’t an option. It’s not about the salary cap, the luxury tax, cap flexibility, rather the simple fact that you might be investing $200 million in two players who aren’t even above average starters.
They are two talented players and it’s certainly not easy to give up on the potential that either one offers. But there’s also the potential for a big payoff in buying a lottery ticket. Throwing all of your money into lottery tickets isn’t generally going to be seen as a great investment idea.
So what do you think DBB? Which route should the Pistons go?
Who should the Pistons choose?
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